The FDA is proposing a plan to phase out the indiscriminate overuse of antimicrobial drugs in livestock. “Implementing this strategy is an important step forward in addressing antimicrobial resistance,” said Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. The two-pronged plan also includes a new extension of veterinary oversight that will allow for antimicrobial drugs to be administered thoughtfully when animals are sick. The inclusion of antibiotics in livestock has been a source of controversy since its inception.
Antimicrobials are simply agents that kill microorganisms or inhibit their growth. More commonly referred to in ordinary parlance as antibiotics, antimicrobial medicines are usually grouped according to the microorganisms they attack. So, antibacterials are used against bacteria, and antifungals are used against fungi. There are many classes of antimicrobials, and even disinfectants such as bleach are known as non-selective antimicrobials.
Many scientists have argued that rampant misuse of antimicrobials is generating a health crisis. A wide range of estimates holds that anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent of antimicrobials used in this country are employed in livestock production. The danger lies in the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections.
The argument: as antimicrobials are ingested by eating livestock that has been fed with antimicrobials, the overall effectiveness of antibiotics used to fight disease is minimized in humans. More and more bacteria naturally develop that are resistant, and the implication is nothing less than a looming health crisis for society.
There is a catch, though. The FDA is only requesting that animal pharmaceutical companies voluntarily remove FDA-approved indications for antimicrobial use in food-producing animals on drug labels, and voluntarily discontinue over-the-counter sales of these drugs. Companies have been requested to notify the FDA of their willingness to conform to the newly proposed guidelines in the next three months. They will then be given three years to comply.
On the one hand, it sounds like good news because many people have been crying foul for years on this issue. It seems promising that the FDA would take these steps even before the passing of a bill in Congress that would make antimicrobial misuse illegal.
On the other hand, in 2010 and again in 2011, the House of Representatives failed to pass a bill requiring more judicious use of antimicrobials in livestock production. In fact, it was way back in 2004 that the well-known Bad Bugs, No Drugs report issued by the Infectious Diseases Society of America gave clear indication of the looming health crisis brought on by bacteria resistant to antimicrobials.
If 2004 is marked as a year of awareness regarding this issue then, nearly 10 years later, the FDA asking politely for it to stop. Unfortunately, when there is no enforced regulation, voluntary compliance is not consistent.
The FDA is also proposing a change in regulations pertaining to Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) drugs, such that medically important drugs approved for use in food-producing animals will require authorization from a licensed veterinarian. According to Bernadette Dunham, DVM, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, “This action promotes the judicious use of important antimicrobials to protect public health while ensuring that sick and at-risk animals receive the therapy they need.”
There is now a full acknowledgment from the FDA that misuse of antimicrobials presents a serious social health issue. After 10 years of debate, the phasing out of the overuse of these drugs in livestock is closer to becoming a reality.
By Alex Durig, Ph.D.